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Battle of the Booklets, Part 2: William Duer vs. Cadwallader Colden

Aaron Ogden Petitions

Aaron Ogden petition from 1814

Aaron Ogden was elected governor of New Jersey in 1812 and served a one-year term. In November 1813 the New Jersey legislature awarded him exclusive rights to operate steamboats between New Jersey and New York City, putting him in direct conflict with the New York State law granting a steamboat monopoly on New York State's waters to Livingston and Fulton.

In 1814 Ogden petitioned the New York State Assembly, challenging the monopoly. It was Ogden's opinion that Fulton was not the inventor of the steamboat and that the monopoly was unjust. William A. Duer (1780-1858), chairman of the committee, endorsed Ogden's position. (Duer was born in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He had served as chairman of the New York Assembly committee that drafted the law investing Livingston and Fulton with the steamboat monopoly on the Hudson River.)

This prompted another pamphlet battle.

In Report of the Committee, to Whom Was Referred the Memorial and Petition of Aaron Ogden, a Citizen of the State of New-Jersey. (New York State Library call number: N,040,B,v.310), signed by Duer, it was suggested "that, under all the circumstances of the case submitted to them, some relief ought to be afforded to the memorialist." The New York State Senate did not agree with Duer and refused to repeal the monopoly. Ogden then agreed to pay the Livingston-Fulton company an annual fee to operate his steamboats.

All these pamphlets/books are available in the research room of the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit of the New York State Library.


Robert Fulton Counters

Fulton to Ogden pamphlet 1814

Fulton countered with a letter, challenging:

"But as you have looked much into books, models and abortive experiments, to prove Steam Boats an old invention, can you shew any publication, model or work, that distinctly points out what the power of the engine must be to drive the boat the required velocity? Or any work that distinctly shews the best mode for taking the purchase of the water, whether by oars, paddles, shulls, endless chains, ducks' feet, valves or wheels? Or what should be the size of the paddle-boars and their velocity? No, Sir, you cannot – these indispensable first principles are no where to be found, except in my patent; they are the discovery, the invention, which caused success."

Image source: Fulton, Robert. Robert Fulton to Aaron Ogden, Esq. [New York, 1813? 1814?]
New York State Library call number: N,609.2,F97f


Colden Writes

After Fulton's death, and Duer continued – through big pamphlets, aka books – their discussion of who really invented the steamboat and whether the monopoly was just.

Colden's Life of Robert Fulton
The Life of Robert Fulton by Cadwallader in 1817

Cadwallader Colden, born in Flushing, N.Y., was admitted to the bar in 1791, served as mayor of New York City and in the New York State Senate, and was intensely interested in navigation and internal improvements.

His biography of Fulton is considered to be an uncritical but detailed survey of the inventor's career, which minimized the contributions of earlier pioneers in the field of steam navigation.

Image source:
Colden, Cadwallader D., The Life of Robert Fulton, by His Friend Cadwallader D. Colden. Read before the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York. Comprising Some Account of the Invention, Progress, and Establishment of Steam-boats, of Improvements in the Construction and Navigation of Canals, and Other Objects of Public Utility. (New York: Published by Kirk & Mercein, 1817)
New York State Library call number: N,609.2,F97


Duer's Reply

A letter Addressed to Cadwallader by William Duer in 1817

Duer countered with a 127-page letter which opens "Sir, An indispensable professional engagement of peculiar interest and importance, occupied so exclusively my attention, during the past summer, that I was prevented form perusing your biographical memoir of the late Mr. Fulton, for some weeks after its publication. But as soon as I had closed the volume, I resolved to address to you, through the medium of the press, a dispassionate remonstrance upon that part of your performance, which, from my peculiar share in the recommendation and support of the measures you there condemn, it seemed incumbent on me to answer."

Image source:
Duer, William Alexander. A Letter, Addressed to Cadwallader D. Colden, Esquire. In Answer to the Strictures, Contained in his "Life of Robert Fulton," upon the Report of the Select Committee, to Whom was Referred a Memorial Relative to Steam Navigation, Presented to the Legislature of New-York, at the Session of 1814. With an Appendix, Containing the Several Laws Concerning Steam Boars; the Petitions Presented for their Modification; and the Reports of Select Committees Thereupon, &c. &c. &c. (Albany: Printed and Published by E. and E. Hosford, 1817)
New York State Library call number: N,387A


Colden Responds

A Colden in 1818

Colden's 165-page response opens "Sir, It is extremely to be regretted that a single professional engagement should have prevented your perusing the Biography of Fulton at an earlier period" and goes on to chastise him for his "deadly hostility to the interest of Messrs. Livingston and Fulton."

Image source:
A Vindication by Cadwallader D. Colden, of the Steam Boat Right Granted by the State of New York [to Livingston and Fulton]; in the Form of an Answer to the Letter of Mr. Duer, Addressed to Mr. Colden (Albany: Printed by Websters and Skinners, 1818)
New York State Library call number: N,040E,v. 7


Duer Responds

Duer's response letter in 1819

Duer responded with a 184-page letter that opens "Sir, When your unwarrantable attack on the Report of the Select Committee, upon Mr. Ogden's Memorial, compelled me to step forward in defence [sic] of measures for which I felt myself responsible, I was by no means unmindful of the invidious nature of the task. I was aware of the jealousy with which persons invested with exclusive privileges, regard those who scrutinize their claims, and I presumed, that in exact proportion as I should succeed in vindicating the Committee from your aspersions, and in establishing the facts and principles of their Report, I should hazard the resentment of every individual whose interest might be involved in the discussion."

He goes on: "You have, indeed, poured yourself forth, Mr. Colden, without restraint and without disguise. You have assailed me with every weapon of ridicule and detraction. You would devote me toe public contempt and execration, as a childish reasoner, - an obscure and half learned pettifogger, - an ignorant and corrupt legislator; - but fortunately, the attack is as impotent as it is violent; - I feel, that it cannot hurt me. "

Image source:
A Reply to Mr. Colden's Vindication of the Steamboat Monopoly. With an Appendix, Containing Copies of the Most Important Documents Referred to in the Argument (Albany: Printed and published by E. and E. Hosford, 1819)
New York State Library call number: N,387,D85

Last Updated: September 20, 2021